April-May 2019

Kropotkin’s Spring

The image for this Work of the Month –of rather limited quality as it is a copy of the Original, which is in the National Library of France in Paris— corresponds to the first page of the issue for 29th April 1882 of Le Révolté, an anarchist magazine («Organe socialiste», reads the title)  edited in Geneva and founded a few years earlier by revolutionary intellectuals thanks to funding from the French geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), also a libertarian and visionary of sustainable and ecological town planning. The text is an obituary for Charles Darwin, who had died ten days before in his home at Down House, in the UK. It was written by Piotr Kropotkin when he was 40 years old.

As is pointed out by researcher Álvaro Girón—to whom we owe an excellent narrative on the influence of evolutionism on Spanish anarchism (At Darwin’s table. Evolution and revolution in the libertarian movement 1869-1914)-  this text shows, for the first time, the explicit connection between scientific issues and Kropotkin’s revolutionary commitment, and his belief that far from justifying exploitation under the banner of “the struggle for existence”, Darwin’s work and evolutionism constitute «an excellent argument» for creating a libertarian society, because they offer an ethical sense which derives from the evolution of cooperation among social species.

A few months after writing Darwin’s obituary, in December of the same year, Kropotkin was arrested in Lyon (France) and imprisoned for 4 years in Clairvaux, a former Benedictine Abbey in the Northeast of France. Linked to his failing health, the period of confinement in Clairvaux determined Kropotkin’s return to scientific thinking and production over the next two decades of exile in Britain, although he never abandoned his revolutionary commitment. Until his death in 1921 in his native Russia, whither he returned after the Revolution in February 1917, Kropotkin was respected in international academic circles and the important media of his age, and also by secret revolutionary cells in different countries, and he connected these worlds through his proposal of an alternative and transforming view of Darwinism.

As he wrote in his memoirs, it was in Clairvaux that Kropotkin recovered his perceptions of nature which had been acquired during his military service in the eastern Russian Empire, in the area around the river Amur which he explored thoroughly between 1862 and 1867. His time in Siberia was essential for his training as a naturalist and geographer, and also for his political awareness and final commitment to anarchism. In prison he read a text by Russian zoologist Karl F. Kessler, from whom he took the concept of mutual help or support. Kropotkin was careful to displace Malthus and aggressive competition between members of the same species from the centre of Darwinian evolutionism, and to introduce cooperation as the essential mechanism of biological evolution through natural selection, And to this end returned to Darwin himself. Kropotkin had read The Origin of the Species –which he describes in his memoirs as an «imperishable work”- as an adolescent, and he explicitly makes Darwin the essential inspiration of his academic thinking, particularly in his second great work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. In Chapter IV of this book, Darwin sketches the idea, which Kropotkin developed in several of his works –including the unfinished “Ethics, origin and development”- that the origin of human morality is based on the evolution of social instincts in preceding species.

Undoubtedly the work which best represents this idea is Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution, published in 1902, and which was originally a response in the form of different articles in the prestigious British journal The Nineteenth Century to Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1888 text, The Struggle for Existence and its Bearing upon Man: «There is no infamy in civilised society, in the relations of whites with the so-called inferior races, or the strong in relation to the weak, which has not been justified by this expression “the struggle for existence”».  Apart from the relevance Kropotkin attaches to cooperation, he presented ideas which are today essential for understanding the appearance of our species, among them, the link between sociability, cognitive development and longevity, which is one of the most fruitful axes of the Theory of the History of Life, or that the potential of the human condition in all its senses can only be expressed socially through our prolonged life cycle, that is to say, from a biosocial perspective.

Since the 1950s and up to the present day, the most pre-eminent and socially committed scientists —from Stephen Jay Gould to Michael Tomasello—, have repeatedly highlighted the importance of Kropotkin’s contributions to the field of evolutionism and human evolution. The British biologist Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) wrote in his book Darwin: Competition and Cooperation (dedicated to Kropotkin) that Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution was the first thorough and rigorous work on the contribution of cooperation to human evolution, «a book which is destined –one can’t be sure- to be born again, and whose influence, which persists, will probably increase greatly over the years».

And so it is: the works of Piotr Kropotkin are reprinted again and again, and successive generations of readers return to them and to their author to rediscover his ethical and intellectual value, and the validity of his legacy. There is a mistaken idea that Kropotkin’s revolutionary commitment hampers his scientific work, On the contrary, Kropotkin’s work is Spring: it always returns with strength and beauty with a message of hope.


Carlos Varea is a biological anthropologist, professor and researcher in the Biology Department a t the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, secretary of the Association for the Study of Human Ecology and co-director of the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology. In the edition by Pepitas de Calabaza of Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution (second edition 2018, which for the first time in Spanish includes the obituary Piotr Kropotkin wrote for Charles Darwin) he has contributed with “Kropotkin, Darwin and human evolution”. Together with Barry Bogin, Michael Hermanussen and Christiane Scheffler, he has recovered Kropotkin’s scientific contribution in the recent work Human life course biology: A centennial perspective of scholarship on the human pattern of physical growth and its place in human biocultural evolution”. Together with  Antonio González Martín, professor and researcher in the Department of Biodiversity, Ecology and Evolution at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, he co-organises seminars on Piotr Kropotkin and the debate on human nature. The contribution of cooperation in the evolution of our species (Madrid, April and May 2019).